“Although the Indian armed forces have the fiery spirit for winning wars, yet a conventional deterrence value is essential while facing a dual threat along its borders. Depleted Force Levels is indeed not a situation we should continue to be in for a prolonged period. Hence, IAF needs to fill the gap with additional numbers as, it is said ‘Quantity has a quality of its own!’ Diplomacy is of high priority for mending relationships, yet firm diplomacy can succeed more effectively when backed by a robust military capability. It is therefore in the overall interests of the nation that air power, being the ‘weapon of first choice’ during conflict, is maintained at a level which deters our adversaries to initiate any aggressive action”, says Air Marshal Ajit Bhavnani, PVSM, AVSM, VM(G), (Retd) The author, who is Former Vice Chief of Air Staff & Founder Member – Society for Aerospace, Maritime and Defence Studies (SAMDeS), writes about the urgency in adding vigour to India’s airpower in the background of Indo-China and Indo-Pak standoffs along the borders.

The Indian Air Force has a Government sanction for 42 combat squadrons. Since 2002, IAF has been steadily phasing out its legacy MiG series jets. In this process, the number of squadrons has sharply declined to an undesirably low figure of 30 as accretions have been few and far between. IAF’s current strength of combat squadrons is the lowest in the past few decades and continues to decline. Phasing out of remaining legacy MiG squadrons, including all Bison units, will further impact its strength. With two Rafale squadrons being added, by 2025 the count is expected to be as low as 27-28 squadrons.  More importantly, IAF will face low numbers at a time when threat from  both our adversaries increases further with  collusive plans being stepped up on  territorial claims for take over of Ladakh and Arunachal by China and on destabilizing Kashmir by Pakistan.  

Diplomacy can certainly ease rough edges between nations, provided it is exercised from a position of strength. Firm diplomacy can resolve issues far more effectively when backed by a robust military capability which can ‘walk the talk’. In the current scenario, India has worked through diplomacy with good success. but yet our two adversaries continue to remain belligerent. Pursuing diplomacy is indeed the basis for resolving disputes, however when confronting two adversaries who are both untrustworthy, that option may not succeed, then war may be thrust upon us. Given that China and Pak have collusive contingency plans to thrust war on us, it would be wise for India to be well prepared to confront such an eventuality

The need for numbers with a mix of quantity and quality are the essence for providing deterrence through air power.  Hence, IAF needs to fill the existing gap with additional numbers as it is said “Quantity has a quality of its own”!

PAF currently has 23-24 combat squadrons with a mix of upgraded F16s, JF17s, Mirage3/5s and Chinese F7s. It is reliably learnt that the Chinese will soon beef up these numbers with latest fifth gen J-20 fighters for PAF. China and Pakistan may have allegedly entered a “secret deal” to expand military cooperation and the possibility of Pak-Chinese collaboration for a fifth-gen fighter cannot be discounted.  

Currently, China is the only nation fielding two new and modern fifth gen fighters, J-20 in service, and next version with higher tech systems, J-31, soon to enter service. PLA Air Force is almost at par with USAF in terms of advanced systems, and also in larger numbers.

These are firm indicators of how our adversaries are both taking decisive measures to bolster air power capabilities. Their hostile approach remains unchanged. India needs to take firm and active steps soon, to maintain the desired level of deterrence.

On a favourable note, India’s current leadership is known for its firmness in maintaining a robust national security apparatus. Considering this distinctive trait, there is sufficient hope that measures will be taken to bolster numbers of IAF combat squadrons. Even though government having to strike the right balanced between development and national security, it remains a critical decision for the nation. Perhaps no other country in the world faces military threats from two immediate neighbours who remain hostile, untrustworthy and unwilling to  to settle disputes peacefully. India can therefore ill afford to lower its guard. Maintaining a strong high tech military would be a major step towards thwarting the contentious designs of our adversaries.

Taking a pragmatic view, the IAF has tacitly admitted it would be feasible to increase combat strength to 36 squadrons by 2030. Approval for 83 Tejas 1-A jets is indeed a major step towards self reliance. However, more long-term decisions could be taken at this juncture to ensure IAF force levels are not breached from figures which could be too harsh to recover from.

The 114 Multi Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) program, for which a RFI was issued in 2017, is indeed a crucial requirement for the IAF. Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria, has stated “procurement of 114 MRFA will be under Make in India plan. The RFI has been issued and we are currently evaluating the response received and the way ahead.

Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) & Tejas

IAF has gone ahead and is looking keenly at ADA/HAL development programs of Tejas Mk 1A and AMCA. At this early stage, we can be hopeful of timely operational realization of these platforms. This is indeed critical, given that our adversaries are known to be brisk and aggressive on such projects. The Chinese have inducted the 5th Gen J-20 in large numbers and soon, J-31s will enter service. it Is only a matter of a short time, that PAF will be inducting a 5th Gen aircraft, a key augmentation to its air power. This factor needs to be given  serious consideration and IAF should take adequate steps to ensure AMCA specifically, is operationalised in a definitive time frame.

Hence, looking a few years ahead, the most critical development program for the IAF is the 5th generation AMCA. Reports indicate, ADA/HAL is moving fast on this project. Indeed, this is a challenging task with several complex sub systems of advanced technology to be developed indigenously. More importantly, it is vital for IAF to induct AMCA within specified time frame to mitigate operational challenges posed by the decisive bolstering of air power by China and Pakistan.

Keeping in view the far-reaching imperatives for advancing IAF’s war fighting potential, a pragmatic approach would be in our best interests. Towards developing and operationlizing a home-grown fifth-gen aircraft and meeting the timely operational needs of the IAF, it would be useful to include a collaborative partner who can provide some of the cutting-edge technologies as well as contribute with a slice of the cost. Such an option would benefit significantly in advancing IAF capability with most advanced technology systems which would consequently herald a new era in Indian aerospace industry.

114 MRFA Program

The global tender for 114 MRFA jets should be vigorously pursued in a time bound manner. With retirement of a large number of light weight MiG fighters and additional fighters in the next ten years, the IAF would be justified in looking for replacements with newer 4.5+ gen jets with the Make in India mode.

MRFA program would be in addition to the 83 Tejas 1A jets recently approved by thr government. It is important to underline that MRFA program would not in any way hamper the indigenous Tejas project, as numbers of light weight jets required are substantial.   Moreover, a large Make in India program as conceived by the MRFA project would result in considerable benefits in terms of hefty job creation with significant gains in skill levels and injection of cutting-edge technologies for high growth of India’s aerospace industry.

At this juncture we need to squarely face the reality of the significant shortage in IAF’s numbers. Can we bridge the gap of up to 13-15 squadrons by 2030? Some would argue against the need for maintaining a fleet of 42 squadrons, when multirole jets, such as Rafales, with wide ranging capabilities and at high cost are being inducted. Can the nation afford these in larger numbers when facing an economic crunch? But then, what are the options available?

Rafale Jets

Induction of 36 state-of-the-art Rafale jets has begun. More Rafales should be inducted, as extensive infrastructure and hi-tech training facilities have been set up and additional jets would come at a more affordable price through the well-established G-G route.

Su 30 Fleet

It is heartening to note that IAF’s fleet of 272 Su 30 MKIs are in the process of being upgraded with modern weapon systems and electronics.  This is indeed a crucial step initiated by the IAF and would consequently add significant muscle to elevate the fleet to the next level of modern technology.

India’s Drone Power

The recent Armenia-Azerbaijan clashes have once again underlined the efficacy of armed drones in conflict and how such UAVs can play a decisive role in success during conflict. Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria has said “drones are an important part for surveillance and intelligence gathering. Their role in the build-up to a conflict is very important. Israel remains the leading supplier of surveillance drones to India and we are planning on procuring more Heron surveillance drones, while planning to arm around 90 already in service”.

With IAF combat aircraft fleet declining at an undesirable rate, induction of armed drones can be a key step for beefing up combat capability.

At this stage it is necessary to mention that while China possesses a large fleet of armed drones,  Pakistan too has not delayed the addition of such drones into its arsenal. In December 2020, China’s state media publicised its decision to supply 50 Wing Loong II armed drones to Pakistan, which it prophesied in its usual provocative manner,  “this would be a nightmare for Indian ground formations in high-altitude areas, as India’s military does not have the ability to respond to these new-age stand-off weapons”.

IAF’s force level depletion is a subject of deep concern and as explained, the nation’s security challenges have only heightened in recent years.  National leadership would indeed need to grapple in going forward with a balanced approach to recover the economy as well as strengthen nation’s security framework.

A nation’s neighbours remain static on ground like immovable property!  It is relationships between neighbours which are the dynamic factor. China and Pakistan, our two immediate neighbours have, since independence remained hostile, being inherently despondent with territory under their control. For these reasons, both have unabatedly tried to change status quo at the borders through use of force.  Diplomacy is the art of succeeding during negotiations and our current policy makers have steered our relationships with tact and sensitivity. Yet firm diplomacy can succeed more effectively when backed by a robust military capability. It is therefore in the overall interests of the nation that air power, being the “weapon of first choice”, is maintained at a level which deters our adversaries from initiating any aggressive action. 


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